“I would not be the man I am, nor would I sing the way I do, nor would I have written the songs I have written without the influence and inspiration you have been to me. I want you to know that today there are hundreds, if not thousands, who join me in saying, ‘God bless the day that you were born.’ ” – John Denver’s birthday letter to his mother, two months before his death
Today is John Denver’s birthday, born on New Year’s Eve in 1943. John Denver — forever in our minds as the youthful, blonde-headed, wire-rimmed granny glasses-wearing troubadour — would now be a 71-year-old grandpa if he had lived. His daughter Anna Kate, 38, who lives in New Zealand with her husband Jaime Hutter, gave birth to a daughter, Daisy Eloise, on December 21, 2011.
Anna Kate’s brother and Denver’s son Zachary, 40, lives with his wife Jennifer in Basalt, Colorado. Anna Kate and Zach’s mother is Annie of the innocently beautiful Annie’s Song fame who was married to Denver from 1967-1982, and still lives in Colorado. The birth of baby Daisy Eloise made her a grandmother.
Denver was tragically killed in October of 1997 at the age of 53 when the plane he was flying crashed into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. In a sense, for me, the music died that day … but it lives on because his songs are still with us.
From his earliest music like the quietly simple Poems, Prayers & Promises to the fun and rowdy Thank God I’m a Country Boy and Grandma’s Feather Bed to the little known but one of my favorites to play on the guitar Shipmates and Cheyenne … the vintage-John Denver I’m Sorry, and later in his career the hauntingly heart-tugging Don’t Close Your Eyes Tonight, John Denver has been my favorite singer-songwriter since 1969.
Perhaps it was his love of the Rocky Mountains that reflected my own love of the Blue Ridge, or maybe it was his appreciation of the simple things like the outdoors, good friends around a campfire, and the power of music to heal a hurting soul that drew me to him. Whatever it was, I rejoiced in his lyrics and guitar chords, and mourned when he died far too young.
Even today, I still hang onto every word as he sings the words to This Old Guitar, the love song he wrote about the 1910 Gibson guitar his grandmother gave him at the age of 12, and how it so very affected the path his life took. He closed his concerts with that song … an ode to his grandmother and his life … and anyone who has ever played a musical instrument understands the attachment between artist and instrument.
His story-telling wasn’t limited to his music. He had a charming way of presenting intros to songs by sharing personal experiences. Who can forget his Dancing With the Mountains video skiing Aspen Mountain? Watching it reminds me of skiing the Aspen mountains in that part of Colorado years ago. Denver was an excellent snow skier, and he knew the trails on Aspen Mountain like the back of his hand, something that is readily evident on the video as he actually “dances” with the mountain.
When my husband, sister (who lived in Denver at the time), and I attended his Red Rocks concert outside Denver, Colorado, on July 5, 1982, Denver shared his experience of traveling to China and looking out at the night sky half a world away. Annie, he realized, was back home in Colorado seeing the same moon and stars and, thus, came the song Shanghai Breezes … “The moon and the stars are the same ones you see/ It’s the same old sun up in the sky/ And your love in my life is like heaven to me/ Like the breezes here in old Shanghai.” But it was too late for John and Annie … their divorce was underway even as he sang that summer night in the shadow of the magnificent Rocky Mountains.
The magic of his concert at Red Rocks Ampitheater was captured for a television special. We were sitting on the third row right in front of the stage that we had staked out at noon for the night concert after standing in line for the first-come, first-serve seats. We watched as Denver and the band ran through the sound check at mid-day, and we partied the afternoon away in the Colorado sunshine with fans seated around us. It was a sold-out event, and we twenty-somethings were excited because it was far out! (For those too young to remember John Denver, Far out! was his signature saying.)
Amazingly, on a whim, I found the Red Rocks concert on YouTube. Ah, the beauty of the internet … all these years later, and there it was for me to listen and drift back in time and remember a wonderful concert that started before sunset and lasted long into the night under the stars in that magnificent Colorado sky. It was magical … a moment in time, a memory that lasts to this day. The entire audience was mesmerized by his singing and hanging onto every word, singing along with this Pied Piper of folk music.
The songs and interviews with Denver from the Red Rocks concert are divided into five videos: Part 1 (Take Me Home, Country Roads), Part 2 (Seasons of the Heart), Part 3 (Thank God I’m a Country Boy and Annie’s Song), Part 4 (Calypso), and Part 5 (Perhaps Love, written as a love song to his fans).
I heard him sing in the Coliseum in Richmond, at Carowinds in North Carolina, twice at Wolf Trap Theater in Vienna, and at Red Rocks. How sad we can never again sit and listen as his personality and talent took us away for that brief moment in time as he shared his life — his highs and lows, heartache and joys — through the lyrics of his songs.
On this day that would have been his 70th birthday, it is amazing how much I still miss John Denver….